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We Live in a Contaminated Moral Environment

By: Vaclav Havel

Summary by: Theresa Murillo

Eunice Samonte

Maria Aubrey Villamor

Section: I-E


About the Author

Vaclav Havel was born in 1936 in Czechoslovakia to a wealthy family who had their
fortunes, and most of their property, nationalized under the communist government that came
to power in 1948. Havel himself was labeled “bourgeois” and was denied college, jobs,
permission to leave the
country, and was spied on
by the secret police. But this
did not keep Havel from
writing clever plays that
criticized Czech
Communists government
for the Theatre on the
Balustrade. Havel was
arrested in the 70s, but
became a national hero in
the Velvet Revolution in
December 1989, when
Czechoslovakia became free
from the Soviet bloc.

Havel’s activism
helped to bring down the communist regime in Czechoslovakia in the Velvet Revolution of
1989. The hope and expectations for his presidency were enormous. Inspired with high moral
purpose, Havel found the art of politics difficult. His proposals were often defeated in the new
Parliament. Three years later, he was not re-elected and the political party he had founded was
voted out. Czechoslovakia then became two separate countries, the Czech Republic and
Slovakia, something Havel was vehemently against. Though he was elected twice more as
president of the Czech Republic, he was no longer the favored leader he once was, losing
popularity and being accused by critics as being naive, especially around his notions of morality
in politics.

However, Havel remained a firm human rights activist all his life, working globally in
support of voices like Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi and most recently China’s Liu Xiaobo.

Havel’s speech interweaves ethos, his ideals on returning to moral behavior, with logos, the
facts of Czechoslovakia’s then recent events and economic situation with grandiose pathos,
admiration for the accomplishments already achieved and encouragement in future endeavors
in a poetic style that was well written to lead his listeners logically from each point through to
his conclusion.

About his speech

On New Year’s Day 1990, having only been president of the newly independent nation
of Czechoslovakia for three days, President Vaclav Havel
used the occasion to address his countrymen, and the rest of
the world that was watching the historic events as they
It is a moral commitment unfolded. 1989 was the year of revolutions for Eastern
of the community to speak Europe, Poland and Romania were still recovering from the
up, participate, and work bloodshed of breaking free from Soviet Russia’s control.
President Havel, a playwright known for his plays that had to
for civil rights, to speak
be acted on stages outside of his own country, did not waist
truth to power—that time in letting the world know what to expect from this
totalitarian regimes are unexpected chose in president. The purpose of Havel’s speech
repressive but so are our was to stir his fellow citizens to take responsibility for their
country’s past failures, return to moral uprightness, and
own fears in standing up
prepare for future elections and changes he, as president, was
against them. planning on making. Havel’s New Year’s Day Address
- Vaclav Havel became known as the “We Live In a Contaminated Moral
Environment” (1990) speech, the title taken from the fourth
paragraph of the speech where Havel, in stirring firm words,
states his thesis.

President Havel’s honest straightforward appeal to self-accountability and return to

morals can be applied to our government and lives, despite the great difference between
American and Czech histories and cultures.

As the strongest and most consistent of Havel’s appeals, we shall look at the ethos, the
moral decline of the whole country.
Contents of the Speech
Vaclav Havel emphasized that we fell morally ill because we became used to saying
something different from what we thought and we learned not to believe in anything. People
nowadays tend to ignore each other and take care only about themselves. Such important
concepts like love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and
dimensions. Havel also emphasized that the previous regime (the Communist Party of
Czechoslovakia), armed with arrogant and intolerant ideology, reduced man to a force of
production and nature to a tool of production. As a result, it attacked both their very substance
and their mutual relationship. Moreover, it reduced gifted and autonomous, skillfully working
in their own country, to “nuts and bolts” of some monstrously huge, noisy and stinking
machine which has no clear meaning at all.

Vaclav Havel stressed out that we are living in a contaminated atmosphere. He

referred this statement to everyone and that we all became used to the totalitarian system and
accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus, helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are
all responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery; none of us is just its victim, as we
are all its co-creators.